Changemaking for LGBTQ Rights in India: Enter, QueerAbad
On the last Sunday of every month for a year now, a group of people have gathered in the city of Ahmedabad to ask questions. Questions are asked anonymously – participants write them on a chit of paper and put them in a bowl.
Hosted by the city-based group QueerAbad, the event series is called ‘Ask What You Will.’
The questions range from issues of sexual expression (‘Where can I find a sex toy?’) to the law (‘How does Section 377 affect my life?’) to society and family (‘I am queer and my parents are forcing me to go to a psychiatrist. What can I do to stop this?’)
Nothing is off limits, and everyone is welcome to participate. There is only one condition, though – the answers must come collectively, from the community itself. ‘There are no experts here,’ says Anahita Sarabhai, 28, who co-founded QueerAbad along with her partner Shamini Kothari, 22. ‘The idea is that we know our lives best and have the information that we need.’
The event series is attended by many young people, between the ages of 20 and 30, the majority of whom identify as queer. This series forms the backbone of QueerAbad’s ongoing work as one of the only safe spaces in the city for the queer community.
Sarabhai says that participants’ attitudes have clearly changed since the group first started hosting the event series. ‘The questions went from being shy and basic – and containing a lot of stereotypes – to becoming much more nuanced.’ Where questions could more often than not be laced with transphobia, for example, now they are about grappling with issues of identity, such as navigating the experience of being both religious and queer.
‘We find that allies are now also asking better questions, and lots of allies come just to listen, which we think is hugely important,’ says Sarabhai.
The conversations have led to a concentrated effort by participants to come up with collective solutions for complex questions. ‘People have also managed to be incredibly empathetic and sensitive in how they answer each other,’ she adds.
Community-making is at the heart of what QueerAbad does. The space is a response to the lack of community-oriented safe spaces that Sarabhai and Kothari encountered in their own quest to find a place to both explore and express their own identities.
Sarabhai says, ‘Growing up queer in a city like Ahmedabad is an interesting experience and my need to have community, and seek real-life representation only grew over the year.’
After five years of living and studying in New York, she came back to a city where queer spaces largely remained invisible and silenced. ‘It had been easier before I had left, when I knew no better, when I had never known what it meant to have a support system or group of people who you could see parts of yourself in, when the isolation was the only point of reference. But this time around there was no way to erase the memory of solidarity, there was no way to find comfort or come to terms with it.’
The queer spaces that did exist felt difficult in their own ways. ‘There was internal politics, incredible transphobia, and the group didn’t really want to do anything for the larger community. It was about social interaction alone, and not really about engagement. It wasn’t queer in any of the ways we mean the word to be – and for us, that wasn’t good enough, it couldn’t possibly be the only space that the city had.’ says Sarabhai.
It was around then that the couple met, and encountered other people who were also interested in creating an empathetic, engaged queer space of the sort that they felt the city needed. This is how, two years ago, QueerAbad came into being.
The duo firmly believes in increasing spaces for engagement with people who may not identify as queer or trans, but are interested in being allies. ‘We know there are allies out there who want to support the movement, but don’t know where to go or how to do it,’ says Sarabhai. ‘We believe that we are at a space in which we can make a change, but we can’t do it alone. We need allies to come out and stand with us.’
Part of the group’s engagement with allies come in the form of media advocacy. Through an informal network of queer-friendly and gender-sensitive journalists they know, they engage in a dialogue over the way gender and sexuality is covered by the mainstream media.
At the moment, the group is not registered, but they are planning to set up an organisation and hire a larger team.
‘We have lots planned for this year but a huge part is going to be really articulating a structure and vision for the space and hiring people to be part of our team. Hopefully this is the year that certain systems can be in place as the organisation gets bigger,’ says Kothari.
Kothari works in research and publications at Conflictorium, a museum of conflict in Ahmedabad, while Sarabhai teaches English literature and Theatre to high schoolers. Both have been engaged in work around gender and sexuality since before they co-founded QueerAbad.
Aside from the weekly ‘Ask What You Will’ events, QueerAbad has organised a stream of one-off events, including readings of poetry and queer erotica and film screenings. They also hosted an event featuring Indian American gender-nonconforming performance artist Alok Vaid Menon. The group is planning to host a mental health day, and a digital security training for the community in collaboration with other groups.
Perhaps the single biggest event the group has organised is a Pride festival, which included a two-day academic conference, a Queer Pride march, and a Pride mela that showcased art made and performed by queer and trans people.
‘Ahmedabad has had three other Prides, but they were very small. Not many people knew about them. We really wanted to do it on a larger scale, and we reached out to a lot of people,’ says Sarabhai. The result was that over 300 people attended, a first for the city.
Beyond organising events, the group also publishes informative booklets in Gujarati and English that people can take home. These provide essential, basic information that people may not otherwise have access to. ‘They have gone like hot cakes,’ laughs Sarabhai.
Funding has so far come in the form of personal donations, and more often in the form of the sharing of skills or spaces rather than money. People have given what they can, including their personal homes and office spaces for the group to host events in. In that sense, the ongoing existence of QueerAbad is truly a community-led effort.